Piffle

One of the fun things about writing historical fiction is using colorful words and phrases from another era. A little bit, however, goes a long way.

It’s also important to be accurate. Recently I read a Regency historical by a very well-known writer who used a couple Victorian words consistently throughout. That’s a huge annoyance to a reader who knows better (and those of us who know the era do know better), and simply careless writing, because it’s very easy these days to look up that stuff.

Which is not to say I’ve never made mistakes, because I have. Early on I got slammed in a review for improperly using ‘throw a spanner in the works’. One learns.

I read another story recently – a paranormal novella – in which the heroine thought, ‘O hell in a handbasket’. No, no, no! If you’re going to use a phrase like this, use it correctly, please. I’m guessing the writer had come across the phrase and liked it and thought, that will go nicely here. Except that it didn’t, because the words have a definitely meaning, and I’m sure I’m not the only reader who knew the phrase was misused.

In a Regency romance by another successful author, a maidservant called a gentleman who was accosting her a ‘twiddle poop’. The era was right; the word dates from late C.18-mid 19. However, twiddle-poop means an effeminate-looking fellow, which the gentleman in question was not. A paragraph later, the writer used ‘what in blazes’. ‘Blazes’ dates from the mid-1840’s. This story was set in 1817.

In the old days, editors at least tried to catch this sort of thing. Apparently that is one of the many things about the publishing industry that has changed.

There are too many research sources available now to excuse these sorts of mistakes. Partridge’s Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English is a good start. I frequently use the website http://www.phrases.org.uk. Dictionary.com often lists the origin and date of a word.

Colorful expletives are great. If used properly. Sometimes even improper usage works its way into the language posthumously. I’ve no idea who first came up with ‘Bloody hell’ — I doubt that it was either Austin or Heyer – but you’ll find it in Regencies everywhere these days. According to Partridge, ‘bloody’ itself goes back to the mid 17th century. Grosse (A Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue) has ‘bloody’ as thieves cant, from about 1810. Neither mention ‘bloody hell’.

One of my favorites, and one I’ve used forever, is ‘Piffle’. I don’t remember where I first encountered the word, but I suspect it was in Heyer. As it turns out, the word isn’t Regency at all, but dates to the 1840’s.

The following definitions are courtesy of http://www.dictionaryreference.com.

1. Dictionary.com Unabridged v.1.1

Piffle, noun: nonsense, as trivial or senseless talk.

Piffle, verb, used without object: to talk nonsense.

2. Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary

Piffle: to be squeamish or delicate; hence, to act or talk trifingly or ineffectively; to twaddle; piddle.

3. Online Etymology Dictionary

Piffle: 1847, of unknown origin, perhaps an alteration of trifle, by influence of piddle, etc. Or perhaps onomatopoeic of a puff of air, with a diminutive suffix.

According to Partridge:

Piffle: very ineffective talk; feeble, foolish nonsense. To talk, to act, in an ineffectual, especially in a feeble manner.

Piffler: an ineffective trifler, a twaddler.

Piffling: trivial, feebly foolish, twaddling.

And furthermore:

To get/give turnips means to abandon someone heartlessly or unscrupulously, or to be thusly abandoned, 1812

Turnip-pated is white-haired or very fair-haired, late C17-18

Tickle one’s turnips means to thrash the posterior, late C16-17

A turtle-frolic is a feast of turtles, 1787

Tuzzy-muzzy is the female pudend, ca. 1710

And twaddle means perplexity, confusion, prosy or gabbling nonsense, 1782

Published in: on September 23, 2008 at 9:27 pm  Comments (1)  
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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. Hi! This post couldn’t be written any better! Reading this post reminds me of my good old room mate! He always kept talking about this. I will forward this article to him. Pretty sure he will have a good read. Many thanks for sharing!


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